Atom Willard: The Clutch Man
We’re having coffee and muffins at Aroma Café in Studio City. Atom Willard clutches his helmet. “I'm on the Ducati today,” he says. “She’s super-loud, a lot of fun when she’s in a good mood. But she’s occasionally not in a good mood. My bike has a drag clutch, so the clutch plates are rubbing together. Sounds like a coffee can full of bolts. It’s so obnoxious. I love it. It’s my 24" ride cymbal in bike form.” Willard’s not a motorcycle collector as such, more like an enthusiast. “I have a couple of them that I ride, and one that I’m working on, but I don’t feel that ’collector’ is the status I’ve reached yet. I feel like ’collector,’ you have so many that you couldn’t ride them all in a week. Anyway, I have too many other interests to dedicate to just two wheelers. You’ve got to diversify, you know?”
Broadening horizons is something this versatile “alt-punk” – for lack of a better term – drummer is all too familiar with. Since the early ’90s the veteran skin basher has been called upon to grace a wildly varied batch of punky rock bands, from Rocket From The Crypt to The Offspring to Social Distortion, to his superstar project with Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge, Angels & Airwaves, and most recently with aggro-politico way-way-alt band Against Me!
Willard’s drum-formative years were spent in Denver, and later San Diego, where as a high school student he got his first paying drumming job with local alt kingpins Rocket From The Crypt. He didn’t exactly come from a musical family, though his parents were supportive –
he was always banging on stuff around the house, like wallpaper-covered cans in descending sizes that he’d spread out and beat on with spoons. At a mere four years old, he got his first drum set.
“It was a tiny Silvertone from Sears,” he remembers. “It had spring tensioners that held the top and bottom heads on, so you couldn’t really replace the heads ... one cymbal coming up off the kick drum ... but it was 5-piece, and I played that thing to death!”
While his parents didn’t force lessons on Atom, they did suggest it. “But I just never responded to it. For whatever reason I didn’t want to commit or apply myself that way. I started lessons a dozen times, but it never really stuck.”
There are drumming fundamentals he now wishes he’d learned in a formal way, but he doesn’t lose sleep over it. “If I could sight-read music, that would be awesome,” he says. “When I do charts for something I’m learning or going to do, no one else could read my charts – I write notes and dotted eighths and this and that, and I don’t know what it means to anyone else.”
Willard’s basic training came from playing drums in the church and at school talent shows, and then in fifth grade he got his first live band together. “My friend’s older brother, he was in high school, said, ’You play drums?’ I’m like, ’Yeah!’ So he came over, and we jammed, and he gave me a tape of ten Iron Maiden songs and said, ’Learn these!’ I said, ’Okay!’ So I ’learned’ these Maiden songs, then he brought three more guys over and we would play those songs.”
By this time Willard was kickin’ it on a 6-piece Ludwig with “Ringo” finish, 24"/12"/15"/16"/18", with no bottom heads but bottom lugs, because somebody had taken them off. “I have pictures of me playing that thing till I was older,” he says. “But I didn’t realize it was what it was, and I sold it for, like, a Pearl Export kit, because it had all the pieces, the bottom heads and all.”
He laughs. “You live and learn. I wish I still had that kit.”
Like a lot of our parents, Willard’s mom and dad were heavily into The Beatles, and Atom’s first memory of music that really floated his boat was “Hey Jude,” which he played over and over, singing/banging along on his trusty Silvertones. Down the road he got into music that featured a little more detailed drumming, and more importantly, had a sound he could relate to.
“I was always affected by production values, so if the drums sounded good, and they sounded like real drums, I was like, ’That’s cool,’ regardless of what the song was. And it worked both ways – it could be a great song, but you couldn’t really feel like they were real drums or a tangible thing. Like I never really got into Def Leppard because it sounded different, like, ’My drums don’t sound like that.’ And you’d see them playing and it was like, ’Well, that looks like a normal drum set but it sounds so ... Mutt Lange.”
He attributes many of his current stylistic and compositional predilections to his exposure to these early-teen, decidedly pre-punk influences, such as his fondness for a heavy hi-hat sound, which he got in part from Alex Van Halen.
“And with Neil Peart and the Rush album Moving Pictures, everything was fast and rad, but more than that, there’s a part there. Even without knowing it I learned to design drum parts for songs, and not just keep a beat. That transcended everything I did later on. At this point it’s so important to me to have dedicated parts for songs. What I do isn’t technically difficult, but I can come up with parts – individual ideas – for songs that help make the song unique.”